In Washington, the Nationals and Zimmerman have grown up together.
“I’m only 26, but I feel people think that I’m 30-something,” Zimmerman said. “They forget that I was up when I was 20 years old. Basically, when I first got called up, I was a baby. I wasn’t a grown-up yet. A lot of how I’ve grown up has been influenced by D.C. culture. It’s a special place to me.”
Zimmerman also wants to grow old in Washington, a desire tied to his faith the Nationals will finally start winning and to the connection he has formed with a city a three-hour drive from Virginia Beach, the place he grew up. He would like to play his entire career with the team that drafted him, to fulfill his potential along the Anacostia, to lift the franchise he has long been the face of out of its last-place abyss.
Zimmerman does not want to be the star player who loses and loses and then jumps via free agency to quench his competitive aspirations elsewhere.
“I mean, no, I don’t want to be,” Zimmerman said. “Would I?”
He let that question hang for a just a moment, sitting on an aluminum bench in the first base dugout at Space Coast Stadium one morning earlier this month, twirling a bat with hands. Zimmerman is one of the best players in baseball and, as a hard-working, clear-eyed 26-year-old, promises to become even better. Last season, the leading analytical Web site FanGraphs.com imagined a scenario in which any baseball player could be chosen to start a franchise. It determined the best choice would be Zimmerman.
Building a competitor
Zimmerman has a keen understanding of baseball’s financial structure — and his potential place in it. His contract extension, signed just before the 2009 season, runs through 2013. But baseball’s economic system places more urgency on the Nationals than those dates suggest.
Zimmerman indicated he will test free agency if he does not reach a contract extension sometime before the 2012 season ends. If they cannot reach a deal in the next two years, then, the Nationals would either risk bidding on him in free agency or, unthinkably, be forced to trade Zimmerman.
Zimmerman as a free agent would potentially create grave economic, competitive and public-relations consequences for the Nationals. Which is why, according to one individual familiar with the situation, the Nationals and Zimmerman’s representatives will likely initiate discussions regarding his next contract this season.